Preview: Y Gwyll (Hinterland) (UK: S4C/BBC Wales/BBC Four)

Policing in two languages

Hinterland/Y Gwyll

In the UK (in Welsh): S4C. Starts 29 October.
In the UK (English/Welsh): BBC Wales in early 2014. Then BBC4

TV is getting more and more international. Not only are different countries remaking other countries’ shows, more and more are willing to show the originals, even if they were shot in a different language.

Here in the UK, we have BBC4 and its foreign TV slot of Wallander, Spiral, The Killing, The Bridge, Inspector Montalbano et al; meanwhile, Sky Arts has given us Prisoners of War, Isabel, In Treatment, Grand Hotel, Maison Close, Hard and their like, while Channel 4 has made its first foray into French in years with Canal+’s The Returned.

But it’s easy to forget (well, if you live in England it is) that English isn’t the only native language still spoken in the UK. Although the likes of Manx and Cornish are confined to relatively few speakers, both Scots Gaelic and Welsh not only have thousands of speakers who regard them as their first languages, there are entire TV channels dedicated to programming in these languages: BBC Alba and S4C respectively.

While BBC Alba is a relatively new phenomenon, the output of which is largely confined to dubbed English-language programming, sport and factual programmes, S4C is over 30 years old and has produced everything from soap operas (Pobol Y Cwm) to comedy (Dim Byd) and drama (Caerdydd).

And yet, despite this new keenness for multi-lingual, global programming, you’d be hard-pressed to find any of this home-grown, Welsh language programming on the BBC or Sky Arts, not even in the foreign language slots.

Until now.

Because for the first time since A Mind To Kill 20 years ago, S4C has made a cop show. Not only that, it’s made it simultaneously in both English and Welsh. Airing first on S4C this month and then in the rest of Britain next year on BBC Wales and BBC4, Hinterland/Y Gwyll* follows the investigations of DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington from Lark Rise to Candleford), who’s newly arrived in Aberystwyth from London. Partnered with DI Mared Rhys (Mali Harris from Caerdydd), Mathias has to investigate four dark and disturbing, 120m cases against the backdrop of the Welsh landscape in a way that should appeal to the rest of the world. In fact, Denmark’s already bought it.

Here’s the trailer. A preview with minor spoilers of the first episode after the jump, together with some more information from a Q&A that I attended at BAFTA last week.

Hinterland/Y Gwyll is a brand new 4×120’ detective drama to be broadcast winter 2013-2014. Shot back to back in English and Welsh the series is a Fiction Factory co-production with S4C, Tinopolis and All3Media International for S4C, BBC Wales and BBC 4.

From the windswept sand dunes of the coastline to the badlands of the hinterland, Aberystwyth Is the perfect setting for this brand new drama series. A place that lives by its own rules: a natural crucible of colliding worlds where history and myth meet the modern and contemporary. Blood,soil and belonging. This is Hinterland.

Into this world steps DCI TOM MATHIAS. On the run from his past, a brilliant but troubled man. Having abandoned his life in London, he isolates himself on the outskirts of town – a town filled with secrets as dark and destructive as his own.

MATHIAS is partnered with DI MARED RHYS. Intelligent and complex, she is a mother wiser than her 33 years suggest. Together, enigmatic outsider Mathias and hometown girl Mared form an engaging relationship.

MATHIAS is at the heart of every story. He is a man we instinctively trust, a man who knows that the key to solving that ultimate anti-social crime, murder, lies not in where you look for truth, but how you look. From the windswept sand dunes of the coastline to the badlands of the hinterland, this is a detective drama with pace, poetry and scale. A series of four two-hour films with stories that are original and local, yet timeless and universal.

Is it any good?
Yes and no. And I’ll tell you for why.

So on the one hand, you’ll have seen this all before. In fact, exec producer and co-creator Ed Thomas happily admits that he and the rest of the production team weren’t big fans of the crime genre and didn’t do much research before creating the show. On top of that, they were aiming to go for the ‘all the tropes’ of detective shows, including the cop with the troubled past.

Hinterland/Y Gwyll also fits the procedural format of the modern cop show very well, with great attention paid to hierarchy, press conferences, the recording of interviews and more, although there are certain dramatic liberties taken along the way. There’s the standard ensemble bunch of detectives: as well as the compassionate but secretive, troubled and downright humourless Mathias, there’s the even more humourless, Christian Rhys who plays by the book; a somewhat inadequate male DC Lloyd Elis (Alex Harries); the more useful DS Sian Lloyd (no, not the weather forecaster), played by Hannah Daniel, who lightens up the proceedings by having virtually no work ethic whatsoever; and über-boss Chief Superintendent Brian Prosser (Aneirin Hughes), who’s perhaps a bit too embedded and even in the pocket of the local community for everyone’s good.

If it weren’t for the fact that the interior decors of the police station were actually shot in a university rather than an Ikea showroom, you’d be tempted into thinking that you were watching Ken Branagh’s Wallander or perhaps even The Killing.

Equally, if you want a good whodunnit and you’re expecting to be surprised by the plots, this probably isn’t the show for you. As you watch the first episode, which sees an old woman attacked in her home and then thrown off the real-life Devil’s Bridge in Ceredigion, as soon as you find out quite early on

  1. That she’s big pals with the local vicar
  2. She used to work in a children’s home

you’ll know roughly where this is all going.

But, the show scores well in other areas. Unlike Ken’s Wallander, you might well believe these are police officers: they do real police work, act like detectives, conduct investigations and actually seem to know what they’re doing, which is a relief. The performances of the leads are impressive, too, which given they’re shooting everything twice in two languages is a minor miracle.

Above all though, this is a mood piece. Firstly, it’s got a fantastic sense of place. Indeed, as the English part of the title shows and Thomas and director Mark Evans confirmed, part of the aim of the show is to familiarise viewers with the Welsh landscape – young viewers probably know Melbourne better than their own country, thanks to imported TV. So, as with Wallander, considerable care is taken to show the beauty of the environment, even if the houses that have ended up getting chosen for locations are a bit grotty.

Secondly, while not exactly original, the story is powerful. It’s not so much interested in telling something new as it is at looking at the emotional effects of crime. Historical problems in children’s care homes in Wales are well known, and the show doesn’t pull its punches about some of the things that went on in them and their likely after-effects. It’s pretty relentlessly bleak, with no light beyond Mathias and co’s compassionate policing, and you’ll be drained by the end of the episode.

Something Hinterland/Y Gwyll also has in common with A Mind To Kill is a slight touch of the mystical. While nothing spooky does go on – although there are plenty of frightening situations within the care home and a scene or two in a church (“Is this heaven?”) – the story of the ‘Devil’s Bridge’ is explored and before you know it, an old woman with a dog is nearby and terrible things are revealed under the bridge.

On balance, then, the show is more than the sum of its individual parts, with the overall mood of the piece and the events in it creating something that’s far more compelling than by rights it ought to be. Give it a try when it airs, since I sat through the whole two hours of it without getting bored once, which is pretty impressive for both me and it.

Let’s talk about that now, with some nuggets from the BAFTA Q&A:

The BAFTA screening

The thing that’s most noticeable about the English language version of the show is that it’s entirely in English. There’s no Welsh in it at all, despite being set in Aberystwyth, which has a large number of Welsh-language speaker. To a certain extent, that’s understandable, given the show is intended for an international market. However, The Bridge (US) is in both English and Spanish, Borgen has moments in English as well as Danish, Lost had significant portions of episodes in Korean, the original The Bridge was in both Danish and Swedish and, of course, we watch the likes of Spiral and Prisoners of War in their original languages.

I did ask Ed Thomas about this and his response was that as little as 15 months ago, networks other than S4C weren’t interested in seeing anything but an entirely English language show; indeed, 12 years ago, when filming in Wales, he was told he had to cover up Welsh signs, so at least things are moving forward, even if it is only at about “11mph” now, he says.

He did add, however, that the conversations were now changing and that although BBC Wales was still going to show the English-language version next year, discussions were taking place with the channel about making the show more Welsh; there was also no word about which version BBC4 would be showing.

More intriguingly, though, Kaare Schmidt, the acquisitions executive at Denmark’s DR Media Berterl, said that although he’d acquired the English-language version of the show for the broadcaster’s main channel, having seen a clip from the Welsh-language version before the main English-language presentation, he was now interested in acquiring the Welsh-language version for one of the country’s alternative channels.

And for the DVD release – which makes a considerable change for S4C, given you still can’t get some of their most popular shows, including Caerdydd on DVD – the channel is working very hard to make sure both versions are included on the disks.

Although we only got to saw a brief clip of the Welsh version of Y Gwyll/HInterland (you can see some more snippets in the S4C trailer I stuck at the beginning of the entry), star Richard Harrington did say that the nature of the Welsh and English language made for slightly different shows, even though the scripts are direct literal translations. Welsh is more poetic, making certain lines more emotional and requiring a different delivery than the English equivalent. Yet it can also be more direct, leading to less dialogue, although the procedural side of things was harder in Welsh, according to Harrington. “We felt like we were talking like machines, so we decided the characters were going to be geeks and love all this kind of thing.”

With Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Israeli, Spanish, French, Italian and other languages now proving to be able to get an audience on British TV and in other countries, let’s keep our fingers crossed that Welsh can also join the list and that Welsh-language programming can succeed in a global market.

* That’s its proper full title, although for S4C, it’s Y Gwyll/Hinterland. ‘Y gwyll’ actually means ‘the dusk’ in Welsh, by the way


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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